in journalism

GQ’s baffling investigative piece on fires in the Mission

Last week, I read a rather baffling piece in GQ by Jon Ronson (a writer I greatly look up to and author of books such as So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, as well as a screenwriter on Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja). Entitled “San Francisco Is Burning” and accompanied by a spectacular photo illustration of houses on fire, Ronson’s piece posed the question: “Are the city’s landlords using arson to drive out low-income tenants? And is this the deadly endgame of gentrification and tech-boom greed?”

These are good questions that bring up important issues, especially in an age where higher property costs are pushing out more and more middle-class folks. Problem is, the piece was a whole lot of smoke and not a lot of fire.

Ronson starts by interviewing an unnamed landlord — referred to as Gideon — who Ronson says “plotted to burn down the apartment building he owned.” But Ronson uncovers zero evidence that any such arsons actually occurred. Gideon only plotted to burn down his apartment building; he never actually went through with it. Ronson ends his piece with this wistful reflection:

I wonder how real estate agents are attracting buyers for all these new apartments. And so, posing as a prospective client, I arrange a viewing of a fancy condo. Not long ago, a real estate agent named Jennifer Rosdail blogged that the Mission should be re-christened as “The Quad, a newly defined meta-hood.” “Quadsters are young,” she wrote. “They like to hang in the sun with their friends. They work very hard—mostly in high tech—and make a lot of money.”

The man showing me the condo is less brash; in fact he’s very nice. So is the apartment, even if $2.6 million seems crazily excessive for 1,800 square feet. But it has a beautiful roof deck, which the two of us now stand on. It’s a lovely evening. A few streets away, I can see the empty space where Mauricio Orellana lost his life. I can also see Lazy Bear, a restaurant off Mission Street that does a 14-course tasting menu for $185, including foie gras and rabbit and sweet-pea custard.

“A new restaurant opens here every week,” the agent says. He pauses as we gaze out over the Mission’s rooftops. “It’s funny to think that a few years ago you wouldn’t be seen dead in this neighborhood.”

I wasn’t the only one who found the piece strange. San Francisco magazine’s Scott Lucas described this piece as a “massive troll with shoddy reporting.” (For some reason the site is down right now as I write this, but here’s the cached version). Firstly, Lucas quickly concludes that “Gideon” is actually a man named Richard Earl Singer, as many of Singer’s details match those of Gideons. But the apartment complex that Singer owned wasn’t even close to the Mission. It’s in Oakland.

Most damningly, Lucas drops some statistics and facts on us about some of these Mission fires:

Leaving Gideon—and Singer—aside, the article is marred by failing to take into account what Fire Department investigators have actually found regarding the Mission fires. Last year, in an article for Curbed, I put together a statistical analysis from public data that showed that, in fact, the Mission was burning at a slightly higher rate than would be expected from its population, but so were the Tenderloin, SoMA, the Financial District, and the Western Addition. Despite the popular narrative, there’s no fire cluster in the Mission.

What we do have in San Francisco, like many cities, is an unfortunate truth that older, poorly maintained buildings that often house poor people burn more often than others do. Arson just doesn’t seem to be the cause.

For example, KQED points out that the fire at the Graywood “was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to a Fire Department investigation.” No evidence that the fire was deliberately set was found. A January 2015 fire that killed one person was found to be “unintentional.” When the dollar store at 2632 Mission Street went up in flames in April 2015, investigators found code violations—no smoke alarms or sprinklers—to be part of the problem, not arson. That was also the case in the March 2016 fire that killed two.

Ronson doesn’t cite any of that. Instead, he offers this: “As I stared at the charred walls, a passerby called out to me, ‘Was it arson or something? Then he shrugged and answered his own question: ‘I guess nobody knows.’”

Not good enough.

Really not sure what happened with Ronson’s piece but feels like he spent months trying to uncover something that never actually happened and had to crank something out to show for it.